Hogtown, Where the People Are
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Hogtown, Where the People Are

Photo by choochootheband.

For a Torontonian, walking through downtown Detroit on an ordinary Saturday afternoon is an eerie, Rod Serling–esque experience: where’re all the people? Nobody’s around. From time to time a rolling vehicle will pass by, on the lookout for a safe lot. It is a desolate, almost post-nuclear dystopia, where every storefront and sidewalk is as deserted as a Chrysler dealership. Even ten or fifteen minutes out from the downtown core, there aren’t many locals in sight. Perhaps the odd drifter hustling tourists in a near-empty McDonald’s or Burger King. The savvy eat in their parked cars, while roving police cruisers outnumber pedestrians and pleasant chatter by a wide margin. Portraits of yesteryear glories hang wherever you go, and you’d like to think this famous city has more heart than a Michaëlle Jean snack, but downtown NoMo-town is undeniably a lifeless, soulless scene.
Back home in our teeming, towering city, we breathe easy, relieved that our fair and bustling metropolis will never go down that road. After all, we’re Toronto, too good to fail. Right?

Photo by karpov.

According to Landliving.com, the hollowing-out of Detroit’s core and flight to the suburbs started nearly sixty years ago. A city that boasted a population of over two million in the 1950s tallies less than nine hundred thousand now. This kind of attrition doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen in plain sight, right before your numbing eyes.
The reasons are multiple and knotted. Most of them aren’t on Toronto’s radar for now, but there is one contributing factor we are duly warned not to overlook: housing systems. A housing system is more comprehensive than the simple set of housing policies normally considered.
Duncan Maclennan is a Scotsman who’s spent all of his considerable working life in academia and institutions in the trenches of urban geography, studying metropolitan regions the world over for the linkages between city population patterns, economics, and environment. Maclennan, the former chief economist at Infrastructure Canada, was here last Tuesday as a guest of the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre (formerly the Centre for Urban & Community Studies) and Toronto Community Housing to headline a panel discussion about his report, “Housing for the Toronto Economy” [PDF].
His presentation, which spoke to the interrelatedness of housing and urban development, was delivered quickly, with the almost perfunctory air of a man who’s now doubtful his sermons will receive full consideration in Hogtown’s halls of power. The following is a sampling of areas he feels we need to address, sooner rather than later, if we’re to keep our city alive and vibrant from end to end:

  • Foremost, Maclennan says, is a need for a systematic audit of Toronto’s housing system, to reassess guiding principles and set up a clear framework for what we want to achieve. It must be viewed in the context of our national and international competitiveness, and consider how policies influence employment, incomes, the cyclical stability of the economy, and, further, the long-term effects on growth and productivity. All of this is urgent because, otherwise, government will continue to see housing policies as a burden and cost, as merely an uncomfortable, intermittent social issue and not a persistent economic one. Ultimately, government won’t give the sector the support it requires and won’t properly understand what it can achieve.
  • Human capital should be at the centre of how we think about economics. The typical measurements (creativity, education, innovation, skill, etc.) are fine, but what about land? Housing systems (or place-based systems)—a term sadly unfamiliar to Canadian policy makers—set the framework for that aspect. Again, it’s more than just some sort of social-justice argument; there’s more to consider than just house price appreciation.
  • The economics of housing commonly ignored include the impacts of social cohesion and sprawl. Housing quality, too, must be recognized as an economic issue. Better housing leads to healthier households, which leads to kids doing better in school, which ultimately results in better human capital. If the poorest people are concentrated in the worst neighborhoods, those children won’t have access to good peers or the labour markets; an environment impairs the effectiveness of the economy as a whole.
  • In the most recent boom times, the income of the poorest 20% remained flat, while rents rose. This exacerbates income segregation, and the clustering of the poor [PDF] becomes wider and deeper: middle-income households are spread further and further apart, and younger households are less likely to become owners.
  • The right program for public social housing is key. We don’t have to think solely in terms of massive subsidies (50% or more) for the very poorest, as even a 10% subsidy will be of exponential help in many other circumstances. Maclennan also sees a system of incentives (pathways) as necessary to help move these renters (20% of the total renting population) into ownership in diverse locations across the metropolis. No more well-intentioned ghettoes.
  • As we speak, suburban Toronto is where “New Canada” is being formed (not, as popularly thought, in western Canada), and the city needs to integrate smaller housing, better connected to public transportation. Widespread access to transit is critical.

There may be some grey skies on the horizon, but Detroitian mushroom clouds are still a good ways off. As fellow panellist Jeff Evenson (founding director of the Canadian Urban Institute’s Centre for Development of Community Assets) put it, “we’re coming out of a long period of financialization of public policy and administration.” There is a growing movement to restore the traditional goals of public-sector investment as a critical support for society. “And we shouldn’t be apologetic about it,” he said. “It creates value.” But it is necessary to better identify and quantify that value. When mechanisms are in place to capture value, social costs will be reduced in other areas.
Another bright spot is Canadian house prices which, comparatively speaking, have been quite stable. There was a significant jump in equity withdrawal after 2000 but, overall, it’s been low over the last twenty years. And Toronto, especially post-1990, has enjoyed a low inflation rate relative to other Canadian regions. We’ve experienced a boom, but we haven’t lived in a bubble; the real gain has been similar to a long-term bond investment.
By design or happy accident, Toronto has realized solid overall stability but—and these are the real issues Maclennan wants to address—social segregation and sprawl are a real concern. “Toronto is rich by nature,” he said, “but poor by policy.”
Maclennan feels the competitiveness audit needs to be completed by the province, but, before that, the province has to “up its game” and come up with a real housing strategy. We’re already well behind regions in Scotland, the United Kingdom, and Australia in that regard, and unfortunately, the recommendation is likely a non-starter, as Ontario has just relinquished housing policy to the Feds. However, if the federal government can be consistent instead of sporadic in its investments in housing programs and think outside the standard subsidies, we can expect better growth.
According to both Jeff and Duncan, what’s most important is getting people to talk to one another. Imagine economists, engineers, and planners interacting with a common goal, outside their respective multi-levelled silos.
At the end of the day, we’re talking about maintaining affordable, well-distributed housing that’s well connected to public transit. It’s a tall order, but we have enough resources to stave off a Detroit-style fallout. We have enough money, enough time, and enough drive. And we still have people.